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Vision Festival 2018

John Sharpe By

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23rd Annual Vision Festival
Roulette
New York, NY
May 23-28, 2018

Introduction

The Vision Festival somewhat surprisingly but reassuringly stands proud as the longest-lived annually produced jazz festival in New York. While the central plank remains what the Festival terms avant jazz, it's interspersed with poetry, dance, art, and film in a way which matches rather than detracts from the music. For its 23rd edition the Festival returned to Brooklyn's Roulette after three years in the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where there was more space but problematic acoustics. Aside from the music, some of the great things about Vision are its comparatively small size, the warmth of a community coming together and single venue location. It remains the pre-eminent place to hear many of the luminaries in what can loosely be termed American free jazz in a short span of time, and as a consequence attracts attendees from across the globe to its six days of festivities.

Dave Burrell Celebration

Every year the Vision Festival honors one of its own with an evening's celebration. Past celebrants have included Sam Rivers, Fred Anderson, Muhal Richard Abrams, Kidd Jordan, Marshall Allen, Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, Henry Grimes, Peter Brötzmann and Joe McPhee. This year the deserving recipient was pianist Dave Burrell who was showcased in three sets which kick-started the Festival out of the start gate with a bang. Burrell first came to prominence as one of the few pianists able to chisel out a niche in the in the 1960s New Thing. Since then he's enjoyed long associations with saxophonist David Murray and bassist William Parker, but has also fashioned a body of work which attests to his interest in not only forward looking practices but also in more traditional forms such as ragtime and stride piano as well as classical opera. The sold out evening provided a suitably widescreen appreciation of Burrell's art.

For the first set Burrell mustered an all star crew to present his most recent project Harlem Renaissance, inspired by the 1918-38 artistic flowering in Harlem. Straight from the opening "Paradox Of Freedom" the tight arrangements made it clear that this was a well-rehearsed band. The transitions between the bluesy tilt set out in the opening and the unfettered autonomy which blossomed from alto saxophonist Darius Jones' curdled sustains and trombonist Steve Swell's blustery fanfares were glorious. This was one of the most convincing ensemble readings of Burrell's music ever and how fitting that it came on an evening of celebration.

A dirge-like unison heralded a darker more yearning ambience in "Full-Blown Rhapsody," illuminated by an electrifying unison shriek from Swell and Jones. Here too Burrell sprang into freeform thunder as Jones began to smolder. The final number "Red Summer March" began with drummer Andrew Cyrille's unaccompanied tattoo, referencing marching licks with a broad grin. A bass drum fusillade released the tension, leading to a series of overlapping rhythms which recalled Anthony Braxton, while bassist Harrison Bankhead kept up a two note pulse. Up till this point Burrell had been content for his conception to stand center stage, but here he too took a solo, off kilter meter vying with backhand flicks, merging with Cyrille's rat-ta-tat. It was a fantastic start to the evening and constituted one of the best ever Vision opening sets.

And there was more to come. One of the young Burrell's first major employers was saxophonist Archie Shepp, and tonight they were reunited, a day short of the reedman's 81st birthday, for the first time in almost a decade. Billed as the Archie Shepp Quartet, the pair were joined by the stellar rhythm pairing of William Parker and Hamid Drake, to revisit some of Shepp's extensive back catalogue. Although past dental problems mean the saxophonist uses a curious embouchure which envelops the mouthpiece, what he lacks in precision he more than makes up for in feeling. That was obvious from the opening notes of "Sonny" his tribute to Rollins, which he endowed with rough hewn muscularity, against pneumatic backing from Parker and Drake. Burrell's splendidly askew comping both punctuated and complemented Shepp throughout as they rolled back the years.

An affecting rendition of "In A Sentimental Mood" matched the accompanying visuals displaying snapshots from Burrell's career. Shepp introduced "Revolution" as "a piece I wrote for my grandmother," before spiraling upwards on soprano sax and then reciting the combustible "Mama Rose" over a rippling beat. Burrell's feature at this point was really a spare jabbing duet with Drake's buoyant polyrhythms, testament to the special connection between them. Although Burrell's role was primarily supporting in this format, he nonetheless provided the critical underpinning throughout, cosseting the romance and stretching the harmonies, as borne out by their version of "Crucificado," a Burrell tune from Shepp's Montreux One (Arista Freedom, 1976). Like the whole set it afforded a wonderful stroll through the history of both men.

For the final set of the evening, Burrell abandoned charts entirely in the company of Parker, Cyrille, and an intergenerational pairing of fiery saxophonists in Kidd Jordan and James Brandon Lewis, to proffer more typical Vision Festival fare. There can be few players who can inhabit the extremes of inside and outside as well as Burrell. He opened by throwing in a few twisted piano phrases and the band leapt in to follow, starting at red-lining intensity and staying there. Jordan's alternately searing and beseeching falsetto forged a pleasing counterbalance to Lewis' roaring overblown tenor and guttural honks. For his part Burrell was indefatigable, energized by the potent outpouring and fuelling it with two handed clusters and astringent pokes.

Jordan has been unwell and cut a physically frail figure, but he held his own, albeit occasionally taking a breather by the piano. The saxophonist and pianist possess a singular bond, evident in how they affectionately egged each other on in a no holds barred spectacle. The two tenors took on a testifying air, particularly when Jordan cycled through his "Motherless Child/Chasing the Trane" licks, but Lewis refused to follow suit, maintaining a purposeful arc to the set. A master at this type of event, Cyrille stoked the fires without ever resorting to all out tumult allowing Burrell to probe the spaces with a kind of fractured barrelhouse, creating a bridge between disparate styles, something which has defined his considerable career.

Akinmusire/Davis/Sorey

As usual in a festival setting the highlights didn't always appear where you predicted. With a discography which includes tenure on the classic Blue Note imprint, the appearance of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire seemed slightly out of place for the Vision Festival. But what his set with pianist Kris Davis and drummer Tyshawn Sorey proved was that in this music preconceptions should be tossed aside. The invitation to participate followed Akinmusire's residence at The Stone in January 2018 where this unit first gathered. As it happened their spontaneously navigated outing was probably the highlight of the week. They began with Akinmusire laying out a quiet but wiry melodic line, detailed with sharp accents from Sorey. Davis interpolated some lovely echoing of Sorey in the bass register before settling into a lilting vamp. The trumpeter offered some distant sighs, and it was clear that this was going to be special.

So it proved as Akinmusire passionate but restrained simmered over a rolling cadence. Davis and Sorey have partnered before in trio format with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock in Paradoxical Frog, and seem especially tuned to each others wavelength. An explosive piano drums duet culminated in Davis stacking up the harmonics on top of each other against Sorey's shimmering cymbal wash. The festival audience was gripped in rapt attention even during passages of almost silence. Akinmusire extemporized a bittersweet melody lighting a slow burning fuse of reiterated piano kernels which branched out across the keyboard. At times they generated an almost unbearable tension as Davis hammered with Morse code urgency and the trumpeter countered with forceful rejoinders, but resolved it in the best possible way. An absolute triumph.

Nasheet Waits Equality Quartet

Drummer Nasheet Waits presented his Equality Quartet with the same all star lineup which waxed Between Nothingness And Infinity (Laborie Jazz, 2017) and he gave them plenty to do in a sometimes incendiary storm force collision of freedom and structure. It seemed in this festival that the presence of saxophonist Darius Jones was a sure guarantee of quality. His drenched-in-passion wail was totally apt for the rootsy vibe of the opening tune. On piano Aruán Ortiz swayed back and forth on his stool as he added spiky comping and block chords injunctions behind Jones' volcanic solo.

Waits was going all out, and using solo spots to act as transitions between pieces. In its initial sparseness, the second number provided a contrast to the previous furore. Ortiz reached under the lid to attenuate the resonance, while Jones' breath sounds splintered into a choked yowl. Ortiz leaned away from the piano as he soloed as if it was too hot, gradually escalating in contrapuntal energy, before pulling back to fit with Waits' cymbal pulse. In ballad style with broad vibrato Jones freighted even the simplest phrases with emotional depth, while on bass Mark Helias mixed darkly resonant abrasion with moments of alluring fragility. Waits was evidently pumped by the end and deservedly so.

Mutations For Justice

A start which involved chanting with candles in the darkened auditorium certainly didn't help clarify expectations of the premier of vocalist Fay Victor's Mutations For Justice. But once she, drummer Michael Vatcher, bassist Luke Stewart and trumpeter Jaimie Branch made it onto stage hopes were more than met in a set which took minimal compositions, with Victor's words addressing the times and actions of the Trump presidency, as the starting point for some spirited interaction. At times the blend between Branch's formidable trumpet inflections, using half valve effects to bend her notes around Victor's forthright tones, bordered on the sublime. Vatcher found numerous ways to carve out idiosyncratically funky grooves in harness with Stewart's unruly riffs. Victor's chorus of "Stormy Daniels I love you" during one piece drew guffaws from the partisan audience and their set formed an unanticipated high point.

The Final Night

If the festival started with a bang, four superb performances on the final night made sure it didn't go out with a whimper. Jaimie Branch's Fly Or Die (International Anthem) was one of 2017's most acclaimed releases so there was great interest in what a live rendition might entail. Drummer Chad Taylor was a holdover from the record, but the ringers were bassist Anton Hatwich, flown in from Chicago, and young cellist about town Lester St Louis. They reprised the written themes from the album in an unbroken performance which, in its tremendous dynamic pacing, alternating fast and slow and loud and quiet, discordant timbral polarity and expansive exploration, even surpassed it. Taylor once again proved himself a tremendous asset in any music which marries the earthy and the cerebral, starting by setting out an infectious vamp over which Branch span melodic variations. There was a rich lyric core to the trumpeter's sound, in which she shows an affinity Bill Dixon in her painterly smears and incantatory repetition.
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